Monday, April 25, 2011

Why I Hate the Idea of Playoff Expansion

In 1993, the Giants had one of the best seasons in their franchise's history. It was the first year of new ownership after Peter Magowan saved the team from moving to Florida, the first year for Dusty Baker as manager, and the first for newly acquired hometown hero Barry Bonds. The Giants won 103 games that season, but finished 2nd in the Western division to the Atlanta Braves. At that time there were only 2 playoff teams for each league, so the Giants missed out. That team is considered by many to be the best modern team to miss the playoffs. Partly because such a dominant team as those Giants missed out on the playoffs, Major League Baseball changed the division and playoff format. Now there were 3 divisions, and the 2nd place team with the best record would also make the playoffs as a wild card team. This is the system we have today. There are a few problems with it; it's possible to have 3 teams in 1 division all with better records than one of the division leaders, and because of that the teams with the best records don't always make the playoffs. But for the most part that doesn't happen.

The current system has taken care of what it set out to do. In 2001, the Mariners won 116 games, while the Athletics won 102. If not for the wild card, that impressive A's team would have missed the playoffs. In 1997, the Yankees had 96 wins, 2nd best in the American League, but they needed the wild card because Baltimore had 98 (the other division winners had 86 and 90 wins).

Let's look at that 1997 season in the context of the news we have heard of late, that Bud Selig is considering expanding the playoffs to 5 teams per league. The only ideas I've heard are these: 3 division winners, 2 wild cards (of the 2 best 2nd place teams), and a one game playoff between those 2 wild cards to determine the 4th spot, or: the same, except a 3 game playoff instead of just 1. Let's imagine this rule was in place in 1997. The 3 division winners in the AL would be Baltimore, Cleveland, and Seattle. The Yankees won 96 games, so they would be 1 wild card spot. The Anaheim Angels won 84 games, so they would be the 2nd wild card spot. Now the 96 win Yankees would have to face the 84 win Angels in a 1 game playoff to decide which gets to go on. Does that sound fair to you? We know that anything can happen in 1 game in baseball. That's why it's completely ridiculous to make a team with a 12 game advantage over another face elimination like that. I know one argument for this format is that it would make the division race meaningful. Baltimore and New York would be fighting to win the division so they wouldn't be that unfortunate wild card team. But no matter how hard each team fought to win the division, there's still a loser. One of those great teams is gonna have to face the barely above .500 Angels. The A's of 2001 would have had to face the 85 win Twins, a team 17 games back of them. In 2002, the eventual pennant winning wild card Giants would have had to face an Astros team that was 11 games back of them.

These are the extreme examples. Many years the theoretical 2nd wild card team was only 1 or 2 games behind the actual wild card winner. But the last 5 seasons in the AL, the wild card team has been 5, 6, 6, 8, and 6 games ahead of the theoretical 2nd. That's a pretty significant gap. The average gap for the AL during the wild card era is 6 games. For the NL it is 3.

The 1 game playoff is a nightmare. A 3 game series is not as bad, but I still hate it.

The reasons MLB would want to do this? Monetary, to be sure, although I question how much could really be gained from 1 more day of baseball. I understand the reality of baseball as a business (although I refuse to say that's all it is) but I'm confused by the people outside of MLB who argue for this expansion on the basis of "bringing in the casual fan" or "single game events like the NFL" as if that should be the concern of any lover of the game. I know it isn't for me. The single game event is nice when it occurs at the end of a season because 2 teams are tied. What makes Game 163 or Game 7 of a playoff series special is that they come after so much; it loses all of that when it is a planned event that both teams will see coming weeks away probably (it would be a blessing for one and a nuisance or worse for the other) . Manufactured drama is the last thing a sport as powerful as baseball needs.

I keep calling it playoff expansion. But this really isn't expanding the playoffs. A 1 game playoff is a little novelty game, a dumbshow before the real play, exactly what it's unfortunate and misguided proponents want from it (to attract the casual fan). Which makes the consequences (a great team is eliminated by a mediocre one) of such an ill advised, absurd game all the more unjust. Real expansion of the playoffs would be adding another round and giving the 2 best division winners a bye and having 6 teams from each league, which I don't like either because that's too many teams. Baseball used to be 2 leagues, 2 pennant winners, and a World Series between them. Sometimes the teams cared more about winning the pennant than winning the World Series. Then the 2 division system was introduced, with 2 playoff teams per league. Then the 3 divisions and the wild card. 8 total playoff teams doesn't feel like a lot, with the NBA allowing more than half the league into the postseason. I think baseball has reached that balance between knowing we are watching (most of the time) the best teams play for the trophy, while also enjoying the randomness and suspense that a playoff atmosphere brings.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lincecum dominates Rockies, Sabean faces roster decisions

It wasn't the most normal night in Colorado. Nate Schierholtz hit a Heraclean home run into the upper deck of Coors Field. Pablo Sandoval walked 3 times, seeing 17 pitches total and only swinging at 3 of them. What was somewhat normal was seeing Tim Lincecum pitch the way he did, beautifully summed up by Grant at McCoveyChronicles:

Lincecum’s ‘07 velocity + his ‘09 changeup + his ‘10 slider + a sprinkling of improved command = what you just watched.

It was a fun night for the Giants, beating the division leading Rockies. I'm not surprised by the number of people who have jumped on the "Rapril" (yes, that is what some Rockies fans are calling it) bandwagon, because it's natural, but one look at their schedule tells you a lot. Before last night's game, their opponent's combined winning percentage from the 2010 season was .440, and none of their opponents finished over .500 (the Giants 2011 opponents had a .495 winning percentage last year).

Cody Ross is rejoining the team, and any minute now we may know the fate of Brandon Belt. Surprisingly, I'm rather torn about this decision; Nothing about Belt's short time in the big leagues has me doubting his ability. He has shown that the two skills for which he is most lauded, patience at the plate and 1st base defense, are very real. Yet he hasn't been hitting the ball much at all. Some of this is bad luck (Aaron Rowand's great start is benefitting from the opposite kind of luck) but it is true that his power has disappeared since that impressive home run in Los Angeles. He also looks late on a lot of fastballs in the middle of the plate, and there have been quite a few groundouts to 2nd base. These are all things I believe Belt could fix up here. But just as we said he should be on the team because he could help them win, and it's only fair to apply that same urgency when he is struggling like this. What's most important for him (individually) is that he plays regularly.

The only possible players I see being sent down to make way for Ross are Ford or Belt. Rowand was the popular choice at the beginning of the season, and while it'd be foolish to believe he perform like this consistently, it's impossible to cut a player who is making that much money and hitting well to start the season. There's no way they send down Heracles after his home run yesterday. I'm not a big fan of Darren Ford at all, but he's a better bench player than Belt, not only because his skills (running, defense) are bench skills, but because there shouldn't be any concern about him getting consistent at bats as there is with Brandon Belt.

I'm not saying I want Belt sent down. Not at all. But I don't have the strong negative reaction towards it that might be expected. The service time advantage that the Giants could have by sending down Belt is also pretty attractive. All these factors tell me that sending Belt to AAA would not be a disaster. If Sabean and Bochy decide to stick with him and give him regular starts, I'd be ecstatic. It would be a great sign, for us and for him.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

SF 5, ARI 3: Mota Good, Zito Baaaad

Barry Zito only lasted 1 2/3 innings tonight after spraining his foot catching a bunt pop up. It remains to be seen whether Zito will make his next start or even go on the DL, but reports say he was walking on crutches after the game. Unfortunately, Zito probably wouldn't have lasted long either way because in the little time that he did pitch, he looked pretty terrible.

This is the first start of Zito's I've seen this year, so I am basing this assessment on an extremely small sample size, but considering his ERA was 5.56 coming into tonight, I think it's safe to assume he hasn't been very good so far. The most shocking thing to me was the velocity on Zito's fastball. Obviously he's never thrown hard, but if I remember correctly, Zito's fastball velocity was around 86-88 at the start of last season. Tonight it was 82-84, with most of them closer to 82. Velocity is a very overrated aspect of pitching because pitchers can succeed with good command and movement on their pitches, but wow, an 82 mph fastball is just really, really slow. Considering he keeps losing 1-2 mph on the fastball every year, what is he going to have a 79 mph heater in 2 years? Obviously I'm exaggerating, but not many pitchers survive with a fastball that soft. Not only that, but his pitches weren't moving and he wasn't controlling his offspeed stuff at all.

I don't want to sound like an irrational Zito hater, because that's exactly the opposite of what I am. I still think Zito is one of the best 5th starters in baseball and better than a lot of No. 4s. I thought Bruce Jenkins' notion that Zito might be cut was beyond ludicrous. I scoff at those who think the Giants have a better option in the minors. I do feel bad for the guy. He's making $18 million a year but it can't be easy going through the amount of criticism he gets and it's not his fault that a team was stupid enough to give him that much money. And most importantly, I do realize I've personally only seen 1.2 innings of his work. He did have a pretty good start to the season after all, the 1st inning notwithstanding. But being a Zito apologist who kept thinking he could put together a season better than the year before, I can't pretend like I'm not a little concerned. He looked baaaaaaaad today.

Again, I refuse to react crazily to SSS(small sample size). Just an observation.

Anyway, the Giants did win this game, so I should point out the happy from today. Buster Posey hit a 2-run homer in the 1st and Freddy Sanchez drove in 3 runs with a double and a single. And Guillermo Mota absolutely saved the bullpen by coming in and allowing just 1 ER in 4 1/3 IP, the most of his career.

The Giants go for the sweep tomorrow against Barry Enright, who is one of those mediocre pitchers that always makes the Giants offense look bad. Bumgarner is pitching for the Giants, so it'll be interesting to see if he can put together his first quality start of the year.

Monday, April 11, 2011

LAD 6, SF 1: Kershaw Dominates Again

This and this. And then tonight. All Clayton Kershaw does is dominate the Giants. In fact, he has now gone 23.2 innings without giving up a run to the Giants. But you know what? Kershaw does that to a lot of teams because he's one of the best young pitchers in all of baseball. He may not have the same track record, but he is the Dodgers' Tim Lincecum. And while the Giants may not have the best offense and some may want to blame the stupid rookie Brandon Belt for not getting a hit against one of the best lefties in the game, they just had trouble against a very, very good pitcher and probably will continue to have trouble with him for the next 10 years. My god he is impressive.

Madison Bumgarner has had a weird start to the season. Last week in San Diego, Bumgarner was actually looking pretty great through the first two innings before throwing over 40 pitches in the 3rd inning. And that 3rd inning was a bit unlucky. The Padres did what the Padres always do, annoy the hell out of you with long at-bats and bloop hits, and all of a sudden Bumgarner had allowed 3 runs in 3 innings and was out of the game. Today, he was again throwing pretty well. The first run scored when after Matt Kemp walked and stole second base, James Loney hit a liner that ricocheted off Freddy Sanchez's glove, scoring Kemp. Then came the 5th inning, when Rod Barajas led off with a homer. 2-0 Dodgers. After Rafael Furcal walked and advanced to 2nd on a single from Jamey Carroll, he stole 3rd base. However, the replays showed that Furcal was clearly out, so no runner should have been on 3rd. Furcal then scored on a single, and with runners on 1st and 2nd, Matt Kemp singled to left field and the ball went right under Pat Burrell's glove all the way to the wall, scoring both runners. After looking pretty sharp through 4 innings, Bumgarner's final line was: 5 IP, 8 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 3 Ks. Kind of a bizarre start to the season for Bumgarner so far.

A loss to the Dodgers is always frustrating, especially when the offense looks completely helpless. But let's all remember that this was the 10th game of the year. There are 162 games in a season, and if you are extremely stressed and concerned after 10 games, I feel bad for you and I don't know how you ever survive a baseball season. The Giants will go on winning streaks and plenty of losing streaks as well. It's what happens. Just because they are having a rough start doesn't mean they are a bad team in need of major changes. Brandon Belt needs to be sent back to the minors after 35 major league ABs? No. Bumgarner needs to work on his stuff in the minors after 2 bad starts? Please, stop. Just stop it.